Teens defy their anti-vaxxer parents prompting a debate on the age of consent for immunizations
After a mumps outbreak at Temple, the University administration decided to enforce strict immunization rules, similar to measures at other universities across the United States, that require incoming students to get the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. This situation presents an interesting dilemma. If teens must wait until they are 18 years of age to make medical decisions on their own, yet they are required to be vaccinated prior to university, should they be able to make these decisions before reaching the age of consent? This is an important public health concern since state laws on mandatory vaccinations allow parents to opt their children and themselves out in 17 states. With growing vaccine hesitancy attitudes in America, we are starting to see the return of vaccine-preventable diseases due to declining immunization rates.
Policies regarding the age of medical consent in Canada are different and vary between provinces. Some provinces establish a set age when adolescents are allowed to make their own medical decisions, including choices regarding immunizations. The age of medical consent is 14 in Quebec and 16 in Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, while the remaining provinces have no set age. Despite the fact that many provinces in Canada have no mandatory vaccinations laws in place, mature and competent teens can opt to get vaccinated for covered immunizations. Being recognized as a mature minor assumes that you understand the risks of immunizations and are concerned and informed about your own health and well-being.
In the United States, unvaccinated children rates have grown from 0.9 percent in 2011 to 1.3 percent in 2015, whereas in 2001 rates were as low as 0.3 percent. This likely accounts for why many are not immunized prior to post-secondary endeavors. This proportion may seem low, but to achieve herd immunity and protect the population from transmission of diseases between individuals, coverage rates may need to be as high as 95 per cent. Higher coverage rates are required if the vaccine-preventable disease is highly contagious.
Increases in non-vaccination rates may be attributed to a variety of factors such as distrust in medical science and institutions, misinformation about the safety of vaccines, and poor knowledge translation of benefits associated with vaccinations. However, one prominent factor making headlines is the growth of the anti-vaccination movement. Some parents refuse to get themselves and their children vaccinated due to personal beliefs or unwarranted concerns that vaccines may cause conditions such as autism. Doing so, they are putting the health of their children and other children at risk for contracting vaccine-preventable diseases that have not been seen in decades, as in the case of meningitis.
Children of anti-vaxxer parents are now coming out to share their experience and views regarding the seriousness of not being immune to vaccine-preventable diseases. An 18-year-old from Ohio recently went viral with his testimony in a U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Ethan Lindenberger talked about his anti-vaxxer mother's deeply rooted beliefs against vaccinations that were further propagated by misinformation distributed through social media outlets. He underscored that it was important to make sure any information you believe or cite was credible. He further stated that his mother would find anti-vaxxer groups on Facebook, which would reinforce her views. Ethan is one of the first to speak out publicly against his parents' view on vaccines, however, other teens have also turned to online forums such as Reddit to connect with others and voice their concerns over the dangers of not being vaccinated.
Even though it is great that students are now critically thinking about their own health, take action, and speak openly about how not being vaccinated can put the public at risk, some states and provinces still require adult consent for teen immunization. There is a clear need to reconsider the requirement for adult consent in teen immunizations. It is encouraging to see the notion of "mature minors" gaining prominence in health care regulations and that students are now using media outlets to voice their opinions on an issue that is so controversial and a potential threat to public health.